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Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of Americaby Rick Perlstein
Tuesday, October 21, 2014 07:30 PM
Powell's City of Books on Burnside, Portland, OR
There's never been a better time to be outside the consensus — and if you don't believe it, then peer into the genre-defying essays in No Future for You: Salvos from 'The Baffler' (MIT). The Baffler founding editor Thomas Frank and editor-in-chief John Summers will be joined by contributor and political historian Rick Perlstein to unleash a fresh round of political invective.
"Any book that rolls Woodstock and Watergate, the death of RFK and the Tet Offensive, Jane Fonda and George Wallace, and a cast of thousands more into a mere 800 pages or so is bound to sprawl and sag a bit, to rush too quickly through some topics and linger too long with others. Even so, Nixonland reads marvelously. Perlstein has the rare gift of being able to weave social, political, and cultural history into a single seamless narrative....And he has the eye of a great documentarian, fastening not only on the obvious historical set pieces (Kent State, Watts, Attica), but on the not-so-obvious ones as well." Ross Douthat, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
Told with urgency and sharp political insight, Nixonland recaptures America's turbulent 1960s and early 1970s and reveals how Richard Nixon rose from the political grave to seize and hold the presidency.
Perlstein's epic account begins in the blood and fire of the 1965 Watts riots, nine months after Lyndon Johnson's historic landslide victory over Barry Goldwater appeared to herald a permanent liberal consensus in the United States. Yet the next year, scores of liberals were tossed out of Congress, America was more divided than ever, and a disgraced politician was on his way to a shocking comeback: Richard Nixon.
Between 1965 and 1972, America experienced no less than a second civil war. Out of its ashes, the political world we know now was born. It was the era not only of Nixon, Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Hubert H. Humphrey, George McGovern, Richard J. Daley, and George Wallace but Abbie Hoffman, Ronald Reagan, Angela Davis, Ted Kennedy, Charles Manson, John Lindsay, and Jane Fonda. There are tantalizing glimpses of Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, and even of two ambitious young men named Karl Rove and William Clinton — and a not so ambitious young man named George W. Bush.
Cataclysms tell the story of Nixonland:
Filled with prodigious research and driven by a powerful narrative, Rick Perlstein's magisterial account of how America divided confirms his place as one of our country's most celebrated historians.
"Perlstein, winner of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, provides a compelling account of Richard Nixon as a masterful harvester of negative energy, turning the turmoil of the 1960s into a ladder to political notoriety. Perlstein's key narrative begins at about the time of the Watts riots, in the shadow of Lyndon Johnson's overwhelming 1964 victory at the polls against Goldwater, which left America's conservative movement broken. Through shrewdly selected anecdotes, Perlstein demonstrates the many ways Nixon used riots, anti — Vietnam War protests, the drug culture and other displays of unrest as an easy relief against which to frame his pitch for his narrow win of 1968 and landslide victory of 1972. Nixon spoke of solid, old-fashioned American values, law and order and respect for the traditional hierarchy. In this way, says Perlstein, Nixon created a new dividing line in the rhetoric of American political life that remains with us today. At the same time, Perlstein illuminates the many demons that haunted Nixon, especially how he came to view his political adversaries as 'enemies' of both himself and the nation and brought about his own downfall. 16 pages of b&w photos." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
There is so much literature about various aspects of Richard Nixon — his foreign policy, his domestic policy, his rise to power, his time in power, his fall from power, his comeback, his relationship with Vice President Spiro Agnew, his trip to China — that it would seem difficult to find an original approach to the man. But, in "Nixonland," Rick Perlstein has come up with the novel and important... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) idea of exploring the relationship between Nixon and the 1960s counterculture, a rebellion of mostly young people against society's conventions and authority in general. Perlstein is quite right in identifying this rebellion — and the reaction against it — as critical to Nixon's rise and his strange hold on the American people. One might even consider Perlstein's book to be primarily about the counterculture and only secondarily about Nixon, since he devotes nearly half of it to a brilliant evocation of the '60s. The decade had begun quiescently, with a general acceptance of the conventional mores of the '50s and the Cold War. But midway through came upheaval: hippies, yippies, be-ins, the drug culture, the Weather Underground, the "summer of love." Then the traumas of 1968: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, campus unrest, urban riots. And, of course, Vietnam. A nation unhinged. Perlstein astutely follows the reaction against all of this by a large part of the American people, whose deep resentments and fear Nixon shrewdly observed and exploited. In the 1968 election campaign, he offered America peace and quiet, law and order. But once in office, he delivered mass arrests of peaceful protesters against the war; his allies in the construction unions beat up demonstrators on Wall Street. Perlstein's "Nixonland" is a land of rebellion and reaction, each faction stirring up the other. Perlstein's previous book, "Before the Storm," was a well-received biography of Barry Goldwater. Now, once again, he has done a prodigious amount of research to give us a fat volume on a key figure who shifted our political ground. Perlstein is a fine writer with a well-developed capacity for seeing irony and absurdity; his storytelling skills make this an absorbing book, full of surprising details. His recounting of the 1968 Republican convention includes a marvelous description of Nixon making a deal with Strom Thurmond to get Southern support in exchange for promising to halt government desegregation efforts and to appoint Supreme Court justices and a vice president acceptable to the South Carolina senator. (Thurmond suggested Agnew, who had not even been on Nixon's list.) Perlstein's account of the Democratic convention in Chicago is so vivid as to make one feel right there on the chaotic convention floor and amid the bloody demonstrations outside the convention hall. In keeping with his theme, he makes it clear that most of the American public sided with mayor Richard J. Daley, who denounced the demonstrators in earthy terms and whose cops beat them up. Richard Nixon understood this very well. But Perlstein's book is weaker on Nixon's presidency than on what led up to it. He certainly catches the anger that Nixon carried into office and fatefully acted upon; he writes, acutely, that "Nixon was a serial collector of resentments." He also captures the assorted gumshoes and clowns who were brought into the White House to snoop on and harass Nixon's perceived "enemies." But while Perlstein is perceptive about Nixon, he isn't reflective about him. He does not examine the phenomenon of a president drunk and out of control, barking orders to aides in the early hours of the morning — orders they had to decide whether to carry out. Nor does he stop to reflect on the true menace of a president using the power of the state against political opponents and trying to interfere with the inner workings of the opposition party. Perlstein makes too much of Nixon's college experience. Rejected by Whittier College's elite fraternity, the Franklins, Nixon started a new fraternity of outsiders, the Orthogonians. (Nixon told fellow members that the word meant "upright" or "straight shooter.") From then on, by Perlstein's account, Nixon saw the world in terms of Franklins and Orthogonians. But the metaphor becomes tiresome and is simplistic. From his childhood on, Nixon felt looked down upon by those who were better off. As president, he resented the elites in the State Department and CIA, and others from privileged backgrounds. But his antipathies extended far beyond that, to include blacks, Jews, intellectuals, political opponents and much of the press (with the exception of those he could manipulate). In his source notes, Perlstein attributes his ability to gather so much material to the wonders of the Internet, but he sometimes seems indiscriminate, if not self-indulgent, in his use of the available information: Do we really need to know the details of the trial of the Chicago Seven? Why are we suddenly being told about the murder of actress Sharon Tate? All the jump-cutting is disorienting, and he makes some small, avoidable errors: The townhouse Nixon bought in New York after his forced retirement was on East 65th Street, not Fifth Avenue; the Washington Post reporter who asked Lyndon Johnson an uncomfortable question was Chalmers Roberts, not Chalmers Johnson. Perlstein's thesis about the clash between the counter-culture and much of the rest of the country, and his explanation of Nixon's place in it, is on target. But at the end of "Nixonland," he becomes carried away and pushes his theme too far. In a peculiar passage, he writes, convolutedly: "Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not." Well, I, for one, don't find it so hard. Nevertheless, "Nixonland" is a highly readable book and an important contribution to the literature about our arguably most interesting president. Elizabeth Drew is a journalist and author whose most recent book is "Richard M. Nixon." Reviewed by Elizabeth Drew, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This is a terrific read. What a delight it is to discover the new generation of historians like Rick Perlstein not only getting history correct but giving us all fresh insights and understanding of it." John W. Dean Nixon's White House counsel
"Rick Perlstein has written a fascinating account of the rise of Richard Nixon and a persuasive argument that this angry, toxic man will always be part of the American landscape." Richard Reeves author of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination
"Nixonland is a grand historical epic. Rick Perlstein has turned a story we think we know — American politics between the opposing presidential landslides of 1964 and 1972 — into an often surprising and always fascinating new narrative. This riveting book, full of colorful detail and great characters, brings back to life an astonishing era — and shines a new light on our own." Jeffrey Toobin author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
"Rick Perlstein's Nixonland digs deep into a decisive period of our history and brings back a past that is all the scarier for its intense humanity. With a firm grasp on the larger meaning of countless events and personalities, many of them long forgotten, Perlstein superbly shows how paranoia and innuendo flowed into the mainstream of American politics after 1968, creating divisive passions that have survived for decades." Sean Wilentz Princeton University, author of The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008
From one of America's most talented historians comes a brilliant new account of Richard Nixon — set against the violent passions of America's 1960s civil war — that reveals the riveting backstory to the red state/blue state resentments that divide the nation today.
About the Author
Rick Perlstein was born in Wisconsin in 1969. He writes about history and current affairs for publications including The Washington Post, The New York Observer, Feed, and The Nation. He won the National Endowment for the Humanities' most prestigious grant for independent scholars. Perlstein lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Table of Contents
1 Hell in the City of Angels
2 The Orthogonian
3 The Stench
4 Ronald Reagan
5 Long, Hot Summer
6 School Was in Session...
7 Batting Average
8 The Bombing
9 Summer of Love
10 In Which a Cruise Ship Full of Governors Inspires Considerations on the Nature of Old and New Politics
12 The Sky's the Limit
14 From Miami to the Siege of Chicago
15 Wednesday, August 28, 1968
17 The First One Hundred Days
19 If Gold Rust
20 The Presidential Offensive
21 The Polarization
25 Agnew's Election
26 How to Survive the Debacle
27 Cruelest Month
29 The Coven
30 The Party of Jefferson, Jackson, and George Wallace
31 The Spring Offensive
33 In Which Playboy Bunnies, and Barbarella, and Tanya, Inspire Theoretical Considerations upon the Nature of Democracy
34 Not Half Enough
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